Burra had a great liking for markets. He responded aesthetically to the way that stallholders set their produce to tempt shoppers, and as an observer of the human comedy, he enjoyed the battle of wits between sellers and bargain-hunters. The 1926 Market Day (on-long term loan to Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, from a private collection) is one of his first paintings in his mature style, and he revisited the theme throughout his life. This painting is unusual in representing a fish barrow, since he enjoyed painting vegetables, but here, the focus of interest is less the barrow itself, with its blue-white, heaped-up haddock, than the muscular calves and arms of the powerfully-built fishwife, who is standing on an upturned box to keep her feet out of the wet. One thing which is particularly characteristic of Burra’s work during and just after the War is that none of the figures is looking at another; each is in a world of his or her own thoughts, staring straight ahead, often humourlessly smiling.
The picture is identified as a Glasgow scene, and its date is based on its appearance in Burra’s 1949 exhibition, but not in 1947: however, it may be somewhat earlier. From odd references in letters, Burra must have visited Glasgow as a child, but his formative exposure to the city took place in 1944. This came about because Robert Helpmann, the artistic director of the Sadlers Wells ballet, conceived the idea of a ballet set in the Glasgow slums, Miracle in the Gorbals. Burra, who had barely been able to get out of Rye since the beginning of the war, was invited to join the company in Glasgow, where they were soaking up atmosphere before starting work. It was winter, cold, grey and rainy, but it jolted him out of depression, and he found the city and its people enormously energising.
Apart from his brilliant set of designs for the ballet itself, his visit gave rise to a painting of a Glasgow tenement, and a pastel of sailors at Greenock. There is no record of a revisit, but Burra had a formidable memory, and even if it was painted in 1949, this may still recall Glasgow’s ‘Barras’. While the overall tonality of the picture is grey and pink, and most of the figures are dressed in grey, shapeless garments, there is a slash of colour to the right of the picture from two glamorous women in russet and blue, stalking past the fish-barrow in forward-tilted hats more characteristic of 1944 than 1949, suggesting either that it is either based on recollection, or that it is earlier than its assigned date. However, in 1947 and 1948, Burra went to Ireland, which he liked for some of the same reasons he enjoyed Glasgow; splendour in decay, with a vigorous, feral life. ‘The loveliest 18th century houses are tenements of such a pitch of degringolade [deterioration]… & inhabited by crones who vanish into portals smoothed shiny by layers of crasse [grease]’, he wrote. This picture may have come about because his Irish experience revived memories of Glasgow, or be a more direct response, but either way, this is a fine and characteristically bleak view of urban poverty charged with rapacity, a vigorous instinct for survival, and not a little disquietude.
We are very grateful to Professor Jane Stevenson for preparing this catalogue entry.